By 2025, 22 percent of the U.S. college-age population will be Latino, a level already exceeded in four states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas. However, today, only 7 percent of college-age Latinos (ages 18 to 24) have earned an associate degree or higher compared with 9 percent of Blacks, 16 percent of Whites, and 25 percent of Asians.
This representation is consistent with older cohorts as well. According to the U.S. Census, only 19 percent of Hispanics, 28 percent of Blacks, 39 percent of Whites, and 59 percent of Asians ages 25 and over earned an associate degree or higher in 2008. Given the importance of college degree completion for U.S. society and its economic competitiveness, meeting the country’s future social, human capital and work force needs make it imperative to improve educational outcomes for Latino students.
As public attention is increasingly focused on the achievement gaps of Latinos in education, many are scrambling to explain our low attainment levels. In fact, the propensity to highlight an incomplete profile of Latinos dominates most conversations addressing our population. Issues related to immigration, high school dropouts, and English-language learning dominate the discourse. While important, these issues are not as applicable when addressing Latinos in higher education, and we must remember this limited applicability when considering the impact of higher education policy to increase educational attainment.
Let’s be clear: the majority of Latinos in this country, and especially in higher education, are U.S.-born high school graduates who speak English as their dominant language. Relative to other groups, we are more likely to be immigrants, English-language learners and high school dropouts. This profile, however, does not reflect the majority of Latinos in this country.
Does this mean we should not address the issues of immigration, language acquisition, or high school dropouts? No. These are important issues, and we must collectively find better ways to address them in policy and practice. We know immigrant students face great challenges in understanding the complexity of our education system. And undocumented students face additional challenges in accessing and financing their education.
Further, we know that, if students do not graduate from high school, then the likelihood we will go to college diminishes greatly (although “ability-to-benefit” still exists in some states). And limited fluency in English also diminishes the likelihood of degree completion.
However, we must not focus solely on this limited profile of Latinos when considering policies and practices to improve educational attainment and degree completion. Doing so means we will not be serving the majority of Latino students. And, as a Latina, I am very conscious that conducting policy “on the margins” in turn marginalizes us in too many policy conversations where we should also be represented.
We need to find ways to talk about Latinos in higher education that recognizes the majority are native-born, English-dominant, high school graduates, while not ignoring the smaller number of us who do not meet this profile. This approach can alter the public discourse on policies and practices that can improve Latino educational achievement and degree completion.
Deborah A. Santiago is the vice president for Policy and Research at Excelencia in Education.